Simanaitis Says

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AWHILE BACK WHEN I TRAVELED a lot, I enjoyed live performances of the Michigan Opera Theatre, including a memorable Magic Flute enjoyed with a bunch of Detroit teenagers. Now renamed Detroit Opera, it has kindly kept me on its mailing list, as exhibited by this deft bit of marketing.

Alas, I don’t travel much anymore, but this certainly encouraged me to research Xerxes.

Xerxes, aka Serse. As noted here at SimanaitisSays, George Frideric Handel was quite the globalist: a German-born/British composer supplying Italian opera to an enlightened Baroque Europe.

Among Handel’s works are 25 oratorios (including the Messiah), more than 120 cantatas, trios, and duets, numerous arias, odes and serenatas, solo and trio sonatas, 18 concerti grossi, 12 organ concertos—and 42 operas. His Agrippina is perhaps my favorite opera; indeed, for reasons akin to Xerxes: Each is an opera seria (i.e., “serious”), but with buffo elements as suggested in the Detroit Opera flyer.

Title page of the libretto, London 1738. Image from Wikipedia.

As described in Wikipedia, Serse is Italian for Xerxes. “The opera is set in Persia (modern-day Iran) about 470 B.C. and is very loosely based upon Xerex I of Persia. Serse, originally sung by a mezzo-soprano castrato, is now usually performed by a female mezzo-soprano or countertenor.

Indeed, the Detroit Opera lead is sung by Key’mon W. Murrah, a Louisville-born countertenor whose gigs this year include Serse in Detroit, together with other Handel operas in Houston and with the Komiche Oper Berlin.

Convoluted Love Affairs. Serse is betrothed to Amastre, princess of a neighboring kingdom, but he has the hots for Romilda who’s in love with Arsamene, his brother who returns Romilda’s love. Atalanta, Romilda’s sister, is also in love with Arsamene. Elviro is Arsamene’s servant.

This explains everything, kinda. But don’t forget the plane tree, to which Serse “gives effusive, loving thanks for furnishing him with shade.” This opening arioso (a chatty aria, sorta), Ombra mai fú, “Never was a shade,” was so well received that it got the nickname “Handel’s Largo” even though the original tempo is marked larghetto (largo kinda quickened). 

Disguises, Misunderstood Missives, Promises Forgotten and Remembered. Seres is the usual opera seria mashup, leavened by both Amastre and Elviro parading around in disguises; she as a guy, he as a flower-seller/messenger. 

In time (actually not until Act 3) and after lots of spats, Arsamene and Romilda get married. Amastre reveals her true identity. And Serse, abashed, admits he’ll marry her after all. Everyone sings “Ritorna a noi la calma.” 

Calm returns to us,” so says Google Translate. I like to think that Atalanta, the girl out, goes off with Elviro because he has a good sense of humor, even if only a servant.

What’s More, It Really Happened, Sorta. Wikipedia notes, “The libretto includes some motives that are based upon events that actually happened. Serse, Amastre, and Arsamene are all based on historical persons. The story of Xerxes wanting to marry the love of his brother Arsamenes is based upon a real story. In reality though, it was a wife of another brother Xerxes fell in love with but failed to marry himself.”

George Frideric Handel (baptized Georg Friedrich Händel), 1685–1759, German-British composer. Portrait by Balthasar Denner, c. 1726–1728. 

Pronouncing the Composer’s Name. Given that Handel spent almost two-thirds of his life (1712–1759) in England, I tend to give his name a Brit ah: “Hahndel.” On the other hand, honoring Handel’s Duchy of Magdeburg, Brandenburg-Prussian birthplace, my pal Ron Wakefield (he, another ex-R&T guy and one fluent in German) prefers the umlaut of Händel, which, he tells me, is closer to our “handle.” ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023 

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